Fantastic Tales

Beware the dragons. Watch out for the trolls. And always remember that heroes may be hazardous to your health.

Not your usual prescription, I grant you. But it’s apparently second nature to Graeme Whiting, an English headmaster who made international headlines when he declared that fantasy fiction would rot your child’s mind.

No, I’m not overstating it. Kind of hard to, really.

“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” Whiting wrote as part of a lengthy blog post on his school’s website, “yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

You might be surprised to learn that he and I agree on exactly one thing: Parents should pay attention to what their children read. Books do indeed open doors onto many places, and every parent should know where their child is spending their time, whether it’s in the park or in the Shire.

But fantasy can open some wonderful doors indeed.

I’m not writing to disparage the more classic works that Mr. Whiting himself loves and encourages for a growing mind, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, which were also part of my reading. Enough so that I’m a bit amused. After all, Dickens was long considered popular trash by lovers of “proper literature” and as for Master Shakespeare – well, whose life couldn’t use a dose of teen marriage and suicide (Romeo and Juliet), eye-gouging (King Lear), witchcraft (Macbeth), and rape and mutilation (Titus Andronicus), with just a sprinkling of cross-dressing and humiliation of authority (Twelfth Night)?

Sure, they’re wonderful – dare I say magical? – stories. But safe? C.S. Lewis once warned visitors to Narnia that the great Aslan was “not a tame lion” and if a story has any power to it at all, it can never be considered a “safe story.” When books meet brains, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Stories have a power that the great authors of fantasy knew quite well.

“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?” the hobbit Bilbo Baggins declares in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien has been my own Gandalf since about third grade, leading my imagination into places both terrifying and wonderful – as have many of the fantasy authors who followed in his wake. My family and I have cheered on Harry Potter, wandered with Taran and Eilonwy, leaped through wrinkles in time, and stumbled through wardrobes into unexpected worlds.

You acquire many things on a quest like that. Beautiful language. Heartbreak and hope. A decidedly quirky strain of humor. And most of all, the realization that evils can not only be survived, they can be overcome.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in 1909. “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

No, stories aren’t safe. Few things worth having are. But they can be priceless.

So yes, have a hand in your child’s reading. Be careful. Be aware. But be open to wonder as well. And don’t fear the dragons.

After all, that is where the treasure is to be found.

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